“Stop holding onto me,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene….” (John 20:17).
Holding onto Jesus sounds like a good thing to do, so why does Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to stop? This instruction puzzled me as I prayed with this passage recently.
One method of prayer is to imaginatively put myself into the scene, to see myself as one of the people in the story or as a bystander watching the events unfold. When I put myself into this scene, I can easily imagine myself in Mary Magdalene’s situation. I can identify with what she must have been going through in the days leading up to this passage.
This person she loved had been brutally murdered and she is bereft in her grief. She keeps vigil by his tomb, weeping. Then, the next day, the stone has been rolled away and his body is gone. I can imagine her confusion and anxiety, the feeling of utter emptiness. How could this happen? Who would have taken his body? Why?
To have lost Jesus the first time was horrible, and now, this second loss must have been almost unbearable.
And then, miraculously, Jesus appears, but somehow different and unrecognizable. Is he the gardener? And might he know where Jesus’ body has been taken? I imagine Mary’s desperation as she pleads with this person. Her angst is palpable. When he speaks, though, she recognizes his voice. It is Jesus.
The shifting emotions in so short a time are almost too much to bear—deep sorrow, confusion, fear, anxiety and then joy at seeing Jesus alive again.
I think of the relief a parent feels after finding a child who had wandered off in a store or of hearing that a loved one is safe after news of an accident. At first, fear grows unchecked. Then joy overflows. We embrace and hold our loved one near, so happy to be reconnected.
So why is this situation different? Why does Jesus tell Mary to stop holding onto him?
When I imagine myself in this scene, at the moment of recognition, I can see myself embracing Jesus, and perhaps that is what happened, but the details were omitted from this passage. Perhaps Jesus allowed Mary a few moments of nearness, of holding onto him—and then Jesus gently separated from her. “Stop holding onto me,” he says, because he needs her to go tell the apostles what she has seen.
As I prayed, I remembered great losses that have left gaping holes in my life and plunged me into grief. What had once been was no longer, and I was bereft and uncertain of the future.
Was Jesus telling Mary—and me—that even though what once had been is no longer, I need to stop holding onto the past? That when I can let go of what was, I can be open to what is to come? I only need to listen for Jesus’ voice and be open to seeing something other than what I might expect.